When Europeans began their ruthless conquests of Africa, they didn’t have much for the spirit of adventure. Many colonial cities were no more than ports for major trading routes for raw materials and flesh, and by virtue of convenience and practicality they were located on coasts with deep harbors and rivers broad enough to ferry goods outwards to ocean. The costs of movement back then were astronomical and the pace was slow and tedious; losing entire galleons of ill-gotten gains wasn’t exactly unheard of. Imported goods from exotic lands were expensive in London and Brussels because of duties levied, of course, but they were also expensive because they were imported in the first place, and sending ships thousands of miles away for salt and spices wasn’t a simple expedition.
International trade on a macro-scale has changed considerably since then and, save for a few exceptions, jettisoned the more basic ideas regarding transportation costs. For industrialized nations the costs of movement is negligible if not non-existent. A container ship of clothes from China or a megatanker of oil from Venezuela is not made significantly more expensive by the distance it needs to cover—advances in transportation have indeed made it a small world. However, for many countries in Africa, still recovering from the twin hangovers of post-colonialism and homegrown despots, getting goods to market is still an ordeal.
Africa is a cunningly large place. The typical entrepôt for travelers getting to the Southern section of Africa is Dakar, Senegal, a hub right on the westward nez of Africa. From Dakar to Johannesburg the flight is seven hours, which took me by exasperated surprise on my (sadly) only trip to the Cradle. A flight from Los Angeles to New York lasts about five hours spanning the width of the belly of a continent; it takes two more hours to traverse slightly more than half of Africa.
So does being big handicap Africa’s trade prowess alone? Industrialized nations generally do well in the marketplace, geographically, for two reasons: roads and ports. Africa, for reasons of history, place, and circumstance, has the latter but lacks the former. Sovereign investment has been aimed at putting out the current fires of medical and military crises, but even during brief forays into peacetime money hasn’t flowed towards projects of modernizing economic mechanisms.
Some critics of this brand of aid, most notably Dambisa Moyo of Dead Aid fame, claim that the sort of humanitarian-first assistance create a culture of dependence and hamstring regional industrial development. As depressing as it may sound, many parts of Africa may need roads as much as they need food or vaccines. The ability for enterprising villages, families, and individuals to get their product outside the local market and into the international one boosts the economy generally—exporters benefit in tandem with other local merchants (this is labeled the “base-multiplier effect” by the economist trio of Krugman, Fujita, and Venables).
To say there’s one solution to Africa’s ails is a little like trying to reach a destination only making left turns—you may end up making it but you’re bound to get lost and frustrated on the way. There’s no doubt that many countries on the interior of Africa would benefit domestically and internationally from significant improvements to national roadways, but questions about propriety and prudence still abound. Highways before mosquito nets? Ports before hospitals? Luckily, those topics are not so much neighbors as they are strangers as a crossroads; one does not negate the other. Investment in capital projects that transform economies affect different pocketbooks than do the erection of hospitals and peacekeeping missions. There is ample opportunity to transform the geography of nations throughout Africa and it all starts with the first road.